The beautiful joy of criticism

It separates wheat from dross, and cuts rough diamonds

Ufology sign
By ‘criticism’, I don’t mean saying bad things about people, of which I think we do way too much.

I mean holding something up, looking at it in a fresh light, considering an alternative view, listening to the opposite argument, assessing and weighing the evidence. 

Sceptical skills do not come naturally to us and I think we should practice them. Argue with yourself against some deeply-held opinions for a few minutes each day, perhaps. 1

I think we should cultivate the friendship of the smart, good people who despite being smart and good, believe all the wrong things.

We should celebrate when we change our mind or arrive at a fresh perspective. These are moments that don’t come round so often. It’s much more common, apparently, only to really latch on to the fresh information that digs us deeper into the rut we have already chosen.

And finally we should train our sceptical gunsights on those who who are on our side, who are bravely fighting our corner. It isn’t wrong. It’s breathing clean air.

Is evangelism biblical?

Only evangelicals believe this.

Breaking bread, juice, dinner party, Broadview townhouse, Seattle, Washington, USAHere’s a question.

Is evangelism something you should ‘do’? Is this how we should think?

  1. I am a Christian
  2. The world needs to know the gospel
  3. Led by God, I must go and tell it/them.

I’ve believed this is the right thing to do for decades but never much liked the idea, and not been too good at it either.

There’s an alternative:

  1. The Kingdom is coming
  2. Turn to the King and follow him

I like this much better. Why are these two ideas different?

The first seems to be fatally flawed in that it casts me as the good guy and the expert and the world as the needy thing to which I am sent like a spiritual paramedic. I am broken, as truly broken as the world is, we all know this, I want to communicate this. We evangelicals like to talk about ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’: good so far. But having the wrong starting point really doesn’t help this communication effort. When I climb into the spiritual ambulance, put the blue lights on, and race helpfully towards you I am obscuring the message of our mutual need.

The second approach starts with broken me and sets as my duty ‘following Jesus’ rather than ‘evangelizing’. Go where he leads; do what he wants me to do; become what he wants me to become; and strive to form disciples en route.

The first feels like a marketing campaign, the second feels more like a pilgrimage – and also more natural, normal and slow.

There’s some Biblical heft behind the second idea (as well as personal preference). It’s what Jesus himself said and did, right from the start on the Galilee lakeside: the Kingdom is coming: embrace it.

It’s what he sent out his apostles to preach and demonstrate.

Even the Great Commission in Matthew, the final peak of Christ’s teaching, is not (as is often taught and I myself have taught) ‘go and make disciples’. It is best translated, ‘in your going’; ‘as you go’; or (I paraphrase) ‘on your way through life’, ‘make disciples of all the nations.’

I don’t think all the evidence is in my favour and I am deliberately overstating things. Just a few days ago I heard of more than 50 students making a profession of faith after what looked a lot like an evangelistic campaign in their university. Paul and other apostles clearly strategized, preached, believed they had the answers and set out to teach the world. They behaved like good evangelicals. But they were gifted evangelists. And they were only a part of the Church’s response to Christ; they had their limitations too. And perhaps campus evangelistic missions are more like the exception in church growth, not the rule.

We are not all evangelists. Teaching us all to behave like evangelists is an evangelical weakness, a weakness that’s obvious to everyone (except ourselves). We thereby seem to love to instruct people in the right way to live–not an attractive quality–rather than admitting the truth, which is that we are all hippos together in the glorious mud–but Christ has come among us.

Inconvenient data

It just really gets in the way of sloppy thinking.

Fulbe herders, W Africa, 1984, taken from just outside my front door — a missionary memory of my own.

Our new vicar showed us a film of his early life as a child of missionaries in West Papua (the other half of Papua New Guinea).

A compilation of home movies, and from the 1970s, it was almost a splicing together of Victorian missionary cliches: small dark-skinned people carry suitcases on their heads through the jungle. White missionary in shorts and pith helmet preaches to seated crowds who are clad in shells and penis-gourds. Female white missionary gives injections while dark-skinned people wait patiently for their turn; local children run to greet the aeroplane.

I’ve spent a lot of my career writing positively about missions in a world where ‘everybody knows’ the whole endeavour is an exercise in cultural imperialism and thinly-veiled racism. These images confirm everything ‘everyone knows’ and they don’t help.

Except they did help. As the film unfolded, we saw the happiness on the people’s faces when they destroyed their weapons in a fire. We saw the road that two villages built to connect them because they wanted to give up war forever.  Primitive peoples? They were advanced enough to disarm and to build bridges with their neighbours and rivals. Conspicuously more advanced, then, than my country; and the gospel did that. The gospel the pith-helmeted missionaries in their t00-short 1970s shorts brought.

How often is the truth more complicated, and more unfashionable, than the lazy assumption? I think probably always.

Healing and technology

Slow healing — part 6

Injured Teddy Bear
Half of all the blindness in the world is caused by cataracts 1

This means presumably that half of the all the blindness Jesus cured was due to cataracts. Some of the rest was due to extreme short or long-sightedness.

These things can now be fixed by technology. Every person who is blind through cataracts or lensing issues can see again: only poverty or waiting lists stand in their way.

Do you have the feeling that having cataracts healed by surgery is somehow not as good as having them healed by direct divine intervention? I do. But I think my feelings are wrong.

The accumulated good deeds of previous generations (in this case, researchers and technologists) ripen the Kingdom of God in the earth. Thanks to those efforts, every leprous person can now be healed by antibiotics, every person blind through cataracts or myopia or presbyopia can be healed by surgery or opticians. I remember sitting in the post-surgery place in our local hospital, after my own cataract op, hearing people around me saying ‘I couldn’t drive– now  I  can!’ ‘I can’t believe how good this is!’

I was seeing the Kingdom come, in the slow, wide way rather than than the instant, limited-issue, demonstration-version way.

I worship the God who stirs the techies to build solutions to improve our lives. Is the gospel foolishness to the geeks? It shouldn’t be.

Do you agree? Is it so simple? What am I missing?

Keep a pencil handy

Because eternity’s at your shoulder

lined paper

Today someone, armed just with a pencil and paper could make something that will last forever.

It might be a pencil sketch, or a melody, or a novel, or a theorem.

As long as there are people, that picture or song or story or insight will live on. Even if humans are out-evolved by (let us say) intelligent machines, they may be wise enough still to treasure these divine relics.

And our art may add to the furniture in an eternal age to come. The Bible’s Book of Revelation says ‘The glory and honour of the nations’ will be carried into City of God (Rev 21:26).

Once there was a time when Picasso had not sketched a dove, when Handel had not written the Hallelujah chorus, when no-one knew the magical relation between e, i, pi, 1 and zero, when no-one had ever written a gospel or a sonnet.

Today or tomorrow some art will be created that will loved for a thousand or ten thousand years.

Two thoughts

Two obvious thoughts flow:

  1. How can anyone believe we are not made in the image of God? That we are not his sketches, melodies, novels, theorems? That he didn’t create us to create this stuff to celebrate his glory of which he contained too much to keep to himself?
  2. Buy a pencil-sharpener.

 

How to pray for healing. And how not to. A few suggestions

‘Slow’ healing – part 5

Injured Teddy Bear
The scene:
ill, disabled, or chronically sick person surrounded by well-meaning Christians who are praying.

Here’s how not to do it:

‘God, we pray that this person will get completely well’ (actually this isn’t a bad start)

‘Oh God, please touch this person’ (I’ve just peeped out of my closed eyes and nothing’s happening and I’m getting a bit desperate).

‘Oh God, please touch this person now’ (And I need to get home to watch Game of Thrones).

‘Oh God, we don’t understand your purposes.’ (Look God, I’m having to cover for you here).

‘Oh God, if there’s anything that’s blocking your healing, please deal with it.’ (We could all get out of this mess if this sick person got his act together.)

Here’s how I’d like you to do it to me:

‘Thank you God that you never stop doing good to us.’

‘Thank you that you set a table for us in the midst of our enemies.’

‘Thank you that carry us all day long and rejoice over us with singing.’

‘Thank you that you wept sometimes and you understand.’

‘Thank you that neither life nor death, neither height nor depth, nor any other thing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’

‘You know, Lord, thank you that you know.’

And occasionally, this

(and only if prompted by faith and if you can it truthfully)

‘God we trust you to sort this out.’

(Though I wouldn’t mind either if you kept that thought to yourself, took it home, and prayed and trusted there without asking anything of me.)

 

My favourite slow mission habit of them all

Do stuff you love, with friends.

Group hugs

Nothing comes close to this, in my experience:

  1. Get a group together doing something you all love.
  2. Mix together people who have a faith with people who don’t.
  3. Er – that’s it.

I’ve seen this so many times.

  • My wife ran a youth group for 15 years. We did youthy things on Sunday nights, and on Mondays all had a meal together and a Bible study. We used to take them camping as well. We saw several generations of young people grow in faith (and some not) over the years.
  • Our church organizes a men’s walking weekend each year, coupled with a monthly breakfast meeting that involves bacon sandwiches. We do curries and film nights too. Quite a few guys have been scooped up by this over the years.
  • I go to a community choir in our village organized by the local Baptist church. Several people, thus exposed to Baptist threshing machinery, have also now joined the church.
  • I used to be part of a book club, a place for some fantastic discussions.
  • We have a board games evening every month, people of varying orientation and faith all geeking together and enjoying each other’s company.
  • Once I organized a bird-watching event at 5:00am one May morning. I put it in our parish magazine. In the more than 10 years I edited that magazine, it was the only thing we advertised where the resulting crowd actually blocked the road. At 5 am! (Actually this was a one-off and did not result in a group, but perhaps it should’ve.)

Slow mission in a nutshell.

If you’re human, this is for you

Handle with care.

So what makes you different from an animal? And does it matter?

Theologians have the most interesting and radical answer. They tell us of course that we are stamped with ‘imageo dei‘, the image of God. Unlike the animals, humans do faith, hope and love.

Chimpanzees
Fail.

Are we the only ones? We can speculate that intelligent aliens may arise somewhere else in the Universe and also bear the imago dei, and perhaps in different ways. Maybe only together with all of them will the fulness of God be properly expressed.

Either way, if the theologians are right, a lot of us have to think differently. The standard model in most Western heads probably sees humans as bits of grit, epiphenomenal crumbs from creation’s picnic, odd growths on a damp rock. There’s a decent argument for that, when we think of how small we are and what common stuff we’ve been manufactured from.

But there’s also a good argument the other way. In zillions of attempts, evolution has repeatedly invented the eye or the wing, but we only know of one species who even think about bearing the imageo dei: wonderful us. 1

And if we are the Universe’s God-bearers, another good argument follows that we may be what the Universe itself is all about. Small? Doesn’t matter. Mostly water? Matters even less. Thanks to us, the Universe includes beings that are self-aware and can believe and doubt, and love and hate, and dream of eternity.

 

My book More than Bananas is available as a free Kindle and ebook download as well as in paid versions.

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10 reasons to eat the forbidden fruit

Why you should do what marketing people tell you

mangoThe Bible is light on detail about the conversation between Eve and the Serpent over the forbidden fruit. Happily I’ve been able to obtain further details of the Serpent’s offer.

  1. The forbidden fruit is 100% natural and organic with no artificial flavouring, colouring or preservatives.
  2. It’s locally sourced and picked fresh.
  3. It’s one of your five-a-day.
  4. It’s made for sharing.
  5. This is a strictly limited, once-in-a-lifetime offer. Other animals in the Garden of Eden could take it away at any time. Hurry!
  6. You deserve the best.
  7. Imagine the look on your husband’s face when you present him with this precious gift.
  8. It’s absolutely free (terms and conditions apply).
  9. If you are not completely satisfied you may return the forbidden fruit at any time. The knowledge of Good and Evil will be yours to keep whatever you decide.
  10. Take back control of your life!

The fractal God

It’s all the same to him

first fractalIf you find something that has a pattern and you crank up the magnification and see the same pattern, you’ve found a fractal — an object that’s self-similar at different scales.

Nature is full of them. Tree branches fork the same way when they are the size of trunks or the size of twigs. Rivers split the same way into deltas and streams and trickles. All broccoli is roughly fractal but there is an insanely fractal variety called Romanesco, ideal for feeding to mathematicians. Snowflakes are fractal.

‘Fractal’ is a helpful lens for looking at God and God-stuff. For example:

Parables of the Kingdom are fractal. When Christ taught about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed that grew to be a great plant, what was he talking about? A word that grips the heart? A change of behaviour that influences a community? A mass-movement that changes a continent? All of them. Parables are true at many different scales, because all are curated by the same God.

Faithfulness is fractal. God shepherds our whole lives, and our tiniest moments. It is, therefore, worth praying for something as big as a whole good life, and as fleeting as a car-parking space. Both are an appeal to the kindness of God, just at different scales.

His mercy is fractal. Of course he cares for the whole flock, but he also puts his coat on and heads out for the lost sheep; scale doesn’t come into it. He values the lost teddy bear as much as the lost Bible translation.

Transformation is fractal. The resurrection of Christ (which from our perspective happened at a single point in history and at a certain location) is the same sort of thing as the re-creation of the whole Universe. The essence is the same, the scale is different. And in our current setting, small-scale victories have a place in his purposes just as large-scale ones do.

His peace is fractal. Our anxieties exist at many different scales. Sometimes, for example, we suffer big and small losses at the same time. And sometimes God seems to deal with the wrong scale at the wrong time. Little gifts from him give testimony to his intricate touch; at the same time the big things, the things that really matter, seem to be all unfixed. It’s natural to resent this, but in another way we should welcome God mending the small things as a reminder that he also has the big things in hand.

His pleasure is fractal.  I don’t think God is more pleased by 25000 people worshipping in a tent as he is by one person’s act of quiet submission or patience. He possibly nudges the angels to point it out either way. ‘Look at my servant Job!’

Of course God works in fractal way, exercising the same attention with  the very small and the very great. Since he is infinite, all the scales probably look much the same to him.